WRITING EFFECTIVE GRANT PROPOSALS
I have been reviewing a few grant proposals recently. One in particular struck me: a poorly written proposal that described what I thought was a pretty good idea. In the end, I couldn't recommend that it be funded -- there were just too many unanswered questions. I imagine it will be revised and resubmitted and that the reviewer feedback will result in improvements.
I learn a lot from reviewer feedback, and having the occasional proposal get dinged really drives some lessons home. But on the whole having your stuff rejected is a really slow and unpleasant way to learn.
One way to reduce your odds of rejection is to make sure your proposal addresses Heilmeier's Catechism, a set of questions that George Heilmeier, the director of ARPA in the 1970's, used to ask of all new research programs:
Questions 1-4 are the kinds of things you need for any good paper or talk, and 8 is obvious. The larger your project, the more important questions 5-7 become. They provide the funder with some assurance that you will be taking steps to ensure that you do not stray too far off course.
Tim Finin, on whose blog I discovered the Catechism, learned the questions in a graduate course. In contrast, grad school taught me pretty much zero about how to write a good grant proposal -- I don't think the subject was ever mentioned. Apparently I'm not alone: 37% of the postdocs surveyed in the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey reported that they received no training in grant writing. Most of those who did receive training indicated that it had involved informal, on-the-job training rather than a formal course or seminar.
(An aside: I suspect that things are both better and worse than the Sigma Xi numbers suggest. The “no training” number is probably a bit high because some of the respondents are fairly new postdocs who just haven't received experience yet. On the other hand, I would bet that part of the “informal, on-the-job training” corresponds to people doing legwork for a PI's proposal without gaining much experience with bigger picture grant-writing issues, and part corresponds to people writing fellowship applications, again, without necessarily receiving much feedback.)
The relative dearth of grantsmanship training is is pretty surprising. Unless you are independently wealthy, some fraction of your time as an independent researcher is going to be spent convincing other people to invest resources in your ideas. This is true whether you are in academia, a government lab, or industry. If you don't know how to write a good proposal, it's going to be tough to move your own ideas forward.
Have you learned about grantsmanship as a grad student / postdoc? What resources have you found helpful?